Tuesday, February 9, 2021

NFL Survives Pandemic; Better Days Ahead

By Anthony Brancato

When the final gun sounded at Super Bowl LV, the biggest winners were not the Tampa Bay Buccaneers — or even Tom Brady, who won his seventh Super Bowl ring in the game.

That distinction belonged to the NFL itself.

For unlike Major League Baseball, the NBA, or the NHL, the NFL did not miss a single game due to COVID-19 — unless one counts the exhibition; oops, I mean preseason games, which no one does. (The Pro Bowl has degenerated into a de-facto exhibition game as well — and also was not played, if one doesn't count the "Madden" version, won by the NFC 32-12).

True, numerous games were moved to different dates, bye weeks were juggled, and games were played on every day of the week for the first time in modern NFL history — but the bottom line is that all 256 games were played over the allotted 17 weeks, even if the home teams did go 127-128-1 therein.

This was the first time in NFL history that home teams finished below .500 — and even in the playoffs, where the team with the better record, or at least the higher-seeded team, gets home-field advantage in all of the games except for the Super Bowl (generally), home teams were just 7-6 (by contrast, from 1975, when home-field advantage was first determined by record, through 2019, home teams were 282-138 in the postseason), Tampa Bay's Super Bowl LV victory anomalously included because it was played at Raymond James Stadium — the first "pure" home-field advantage situation in Super Bowl history (when the Steelers defeated the Rams in Super Bowl XIV, the game was played at Pasadena, and when the 49ers defeated the Dolphins in Super Bowl XIX, that game was played at Stanford).

Not only that, but teams losing the first meeting to a division rival at home were 9-7 in the rematches on the road in 2020, when such teams had gone 27-62 from 2016 through 2019, and warm-weather and indoor teams playing on the road at northern, outdoor stadiums in November or later improved from 3-19 in 2019 to 16-20 in 2020 (in the regular season).

But where does the NFL go from here?

Straight up.

At their spring meeting, whose date has yet to be determined (and may be a "virtual" meeting due to the pandemic), the owners are expected to formally approve the 17-game schedule — and may decree that the 17 games be played over 19 weeks, giving each team a second bye week — for which a precedent already exists, in 1993.

While the NFLPA has already agreed to 17 games in the collective bargaining agreement it signed with the owners 11 months ago, the owners would have to sit down with the TV networks, who might actually demand the 17-games-over-19-weeks format — and they have enough leverage to slam the door on the 17-game schedule altogether if the owners refuse.

But all sides should be eager to implement the 17-game schedule as soon as possible: The owners, to start recouping the massive loss of revenue they incurred during the 2020 season; the players, to minimize the cut in the salary cap (and also to receive a 6.25% across-the-board salary increase); and the networks, to receive more money from the owners, especially if two weeks are added to the regular season instead of only one.

And for the moment at least, the combine will be held as usual, for four days beginning on March 8 in Indianapolis. The draft remains on, too, in Cleveland, for three days, beginning April 29.

So you see, it's all business as usual in the NFL — and very likely, with even more "business" starting next season.

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